History of epilepsy: perceptions from past to present

  • January 18, 2022
  • 3
In this article

In a 2013 study, more Americans than ever agreed that “people with epilepsy can do anything”. This finding reflects a general trend in the US, where people are becoming more accepting and knowledgeable of epilepsy.  

While this is encouraging, there is still stigma against the condition. To understand why people with epilepsy are sometimes discriminated against, it is important to study the history of epilepsy to learn where those prejudices come from. 

This is the third blog in our series on the history of epilepsy treatment and diagnosis. Read the first blog about epilepsy in ancient times here and the improvements in the modern era here.

Stigma rooted in ancient beliefs

In many societies throughout history, people with epilepsy were treated differently. They were often treated badly - although in some cultures epilepsy was viewed positively, or even as a sign of genius. 

For example, the Code of Hammurabi is a near-4000-year-old text from Mesopotamia (in modern-day Iraq) which barred people with epilepsy from getting married or testifying in court. Many ancient societies explained seizures as an attack by evil spirits. In the Bible, for instance, Jesus is described curing a boy with epilepsy by casting out evil spirits. 

However, some societies, such as the Ancient Greeks, called epilepsy the ‘sacred disease’ – and associated it with genius. Greek mythical heroes like Hercules, for instance, were supposed to have epilepsy. 

Fear has been common in the history of epilepsy

For thousands of years, people believed epilepsy was a contagious disease. In Ancient Rome, for example, people refused to eat from the same plate as someone with epilepsy, and in many European countries they were segregated from other people in churches. One German preacher in the 13th century warned that just talking to someone with epilepsy was dangerous because he believed they had a contagious breath. 

Improvements in the 20th century

Over the last 100 years there have been important improvements in perceptions of epilepsy, largely thanks to the work of organizations like the International League Against Epilepsy and The Epilepsy Foundation.  These foundations focus on educating people and providing resources for patients.

All the same, people with epilepsy were barred from marrying in 17 US states until 1956. Fortunately, things have improved. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (among other laws) supported the rights of people with epilepsy – they are now allowed to drive if safe for them and others, apply for most jobs and live a normal life. We have certainly come a long way in the last 100 years, which is a great achievement. 

That said, some discrimination continues, and people with epilepsy are more likely to be unemployed than others. What’s more, in many other countries around the world similar progress has been slow.   

Improvements in understanding in the history of epilepsy

For much of history, people with epilepsy have been treated differently from the rest of society. However, as this series of articles has shown, change can and has happened throughout the history of epilepsy which gives reason to hope that things will keep getting better.  

In the last 200 years our medical understanding of epilepsy has improved dramatically – and with better education and awareness, society’s perceptions should gradually catch up with our scientific knowledge too. 

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